When you visit the famous wine-growing region of Napa, perhaps there is no local attraction that captures the spirit of your journey better than a ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train. Hop on board this historic train and you'll chug your way through scenic vineyards to wine-lover's heaven.
The Napa experience is all about wine, of course, but it's also about enjoying the finer things in life. The typical Napa visitor will spend considerable time visiting several of the local wineries where each will offer up its special formulas and vintages — usually for ten to 15 bucks for a few sips — and there are few lodgings in Napa that are not upscale. Fine dining is also considered de rigueur for any serious visit to what is now the home base for hundreds of wineries.
It's fitting, therefore, that the Napa Valley Wine Train would be one of the most popular tourist attractions in a place that is the definition of elegance. Just like visitors taste expensive wines for a fraction of their cost, the visitor who boards the Wine Train gets a little taste of pampered rail travel — think Orient Express — for a fraction of what it would cost for the real thing.
We stayed the night before in San Francisco, but we were still able to make our way to the Wine Train's station in Napa by about 10:30 a.m. to board the lunch train. The Wine Train also offers a dinner excursion but that was fully booked when we called for reservations weeks ahead. The lunch train, though, has its advantages: the entire three-hour ride is in daylight no matter the time of year, and it costs a little less.
You'll want to plan on being patient during the boarding process. With hundreds of guests and passengers allocated to different dining areas and even, in some cases, different meals, it just takes a little time to get everyone signed in and out onto the train. But during the hour we waited for actual boarding, the Wine Train offered a lecture on Napa Valley wineries and — always a crowd-pleaser — a couple of glasses of wine to sample.
Once on board, it's clear that the Wine Train has pulled out all the stops to make this as luxurious as possible. We settled down into plush chairs facing one another with a table in between. Others in our car sat in comfortable over-stuffed swivel chairs positioned side by side so that guests could constantly view the passing scenery or easily chat with one another. This particular rail car was styled in red and gold with natural wood accents, giving a sense of luxury and feeling quite different from a typical passenger car on, say, Amtrak.
This is a historic rail car and, in fact, there is quite a history behind this train and railroad. The rail line was first built in 1864 by San Francisco's first millionaire, Samuel Brannan, and was used to take visitors to his new spa resort called "Calistoga." In 1885, Southern Pacific bought the Napa Valley Railroad, which provided regular passenger service to the Napa Valley until the 1930's. It was used for freight for awhile after that, but it was not until 1987 that a group of concerned citizens founded the Napa Valley Wine train and purchased locomotives and restored 1910-era Pullman rail cars to provide the new service.
During our three hours on board, we were treated to waves of meal and beverage service starting with wine (not included in your meal price, by the way), appetizers, salad, a main course — which during our trip was a choice between salmon and a beef entrée — and dessert. Everything was exquisitely prepared and the presentations rivaled what you would find at an expensive gourmet restaurant.
The trip took us part way up the valley to St. Helena and then back to Napa. Along the way we passed countless wineries, gorgeous vineyards and majestic views of the hills and mountains just beyond the valley. On weekends the Wine Train offers a variation of this lunch service that allows passengers to disembark and spend some time at a local winery before making the return trip to Napa.
We arrived back in Napa totally relaxed and decided to visit a few wineries before checking into our resort. The choices are endless and, in Napa, there are several major wineries that have put Big Money into their visitor centers. There are also a few smaller family-run wineries. They all want you to buy cases or bottles of wine to take back home but, in Napa, we've noticed a trend in recent years toward charging more for wine tasting. Or it may be a case of charging the same but getting less wine. Part of this, we're suspecting, has to do with how busy Napa is on weekends and is a way of reducing the line at the tasting bar.
One of the least expensive tastings is at V. Sattui Winery, where the gift shop and deli were buzzing with people, and lines were forming along the wine bar to taste the latest offerings. Located in St. Helena, this winery is a popular stop for visitors who want to buy a bottle of wine and then picnic on the beautifully landscaped grounds. The winery even sets up a buffet line out on the grounds, offering barbecue for those who didn't bring their brown bags. Interestingly, V. Sattui does not sell its wine anyplace other than the winery, by mail order, or from the company web site.
While V. Sattui is typical of a relatively small family-run winery, the other end of the scale is Domaine Chandon, which we found in Yountville. With spectacular park grounds and a four-star gourmet restaurant just footsteps from where the wine is made, Domaine Chandon is an example of a winery owned by a large conglomerate that distributes its product world-wide. On a previous trip we took the 45-minute tour of this massive facility, which we thought was well worth the time. Small groups are taken step-by-step through the process of wine-making all the way from growing the grapes to bottling the product.
We concluded our busy first day in the Napa Valley with a short drive to our lodging for the evening, the Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa. Like several other Napa Valley accommodations, the Silverado is steeped in luxury and offers a feast for the senses. Located adjacent to an 18-hole golf course, the Silverado is really a series of individual cottage suites which are reached by winding walkways through and alongside picturesque, colorful gardens, golf fairways, courtyards and ponds.
Each of the cottages at Silverado has a unique décor and ours felt like a small one-story vacation home with a complete kitchen and living room area, dining table, fireplace and separate bedroom. A wide-screen flat TV was in the living room, while just outside the sliding glass door was a patio and chairs where we could sit and watch the golfers just a few yards away.
The Silverado reminded us a little of Harrison Hot Springs, B.C., a favorite resort of ours that has the same kind of feeling — that of a village of unique accommodations connected by meandering walkways with little surprises around every turn. With 1,200 acres altogether, Silverado guests encounter many pleasant surprises on grounds that are lush with trees and vegetation and impeccably maintained.
Silverado was the perfect complement to our day on the Napa Valley Wine Train and another great example of the spirit of Napa Valley.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Napa Valley is about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco or about 60 miles southwest of Sacramento.
WHAT: The Napa Valley has become famous because of the grapes grown in this location. Grapes grown in different climates, soils and locations have different characteristics and Napa Valley grapes are judged to be some of the best in the world for making several varieties of fine wine. Accordingly, more than 300 wineries now have located in the Valley. Fine restaurants, lodging and shopping have also come to the Valley.
WHEN: Any time of year. A special bonus comes in August and September during the annual grape harvest. You can sometimes see first-hand how the grapes are crushed. Hint: Most of them don't do it like Lucy Ricardo did.
WHY: The Valley has an almost mystical ambiance that is hard to describe, but easy to discern.
HOW: To begin planning your trip to Napa Valley, go to www.napavintners.com or www.napachamber.org. To learn more about the Napa Valley Wine Train, call 800-427-4124 or go to www.winetrain.com. For information on Silverado Resort and Spa, phone 800-427-4124 or visit www.silveradoresort.com.
Photos, from top: Historic Napa Valley Wine Train; luxurious interior of Pullman car; a look outside toward the passing vineyards; Silverado Resort
Photos by CARY ORDWAY